Thursday 27 December 2012

Finding evidence for the Roman ice trade

If the Romans developed a commercial ice trade then where is the proof? Well, we may actually have some evidence for 'ice' refrigeration when we do a little lateral thinking. The Mediterranean cultures loved their seafood, and the Romans weren't any different. They began oyster cultivation on a massive scale...and some Roman-era oyster beds are still in use around the coast of Sardinia. So big was the demand for oysters across the Roman world, that Roman-era rubbish dumps are generally identified by the amount of oyster shell present. In fact oysters were the fast food of the Roman world. From Britain to Syria, roadside stalls sold oysters to famished travellers by the bucket. The thing is, a lot of these places where oysters were sold in quantity are hundreds of miles from where the oysters were cultivated. Now a live oyster will survive about four weeks in transit - the reason oyster consumption became so widespread - but they must be kept cool. Without some way of keeping those oysters cool, a traveller in the Syrian desert would have been very brave to sample the local oyster shop. The same goes for any seafood consumed in Rome's landlocked cities - which includes Rome itself. Does this mean fresh goods were packed in ice? Or even evaporative coolers? From a modern perspective, and presuming the Romans were just as keen not to die from food poisoning as us, then the answer once again points towards a large commercial trade of ice flowing from the northern Germanic lands, the Alps and other highlands in the Roman world...the kind of ho-hum and hum-drum of life the ancient writers never bothered to mention. But just because no one wrote about the Roman ice trade hardly excludes its explanation of the oyster industry. Food for thought, eh?

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